Why SimCity Needs Subways

I live in New York City. Everyday I ride the subway to work; most people here do. I haven’t owned a car in 10 years. I live the densest large city in America, one full of massive skyscrapers, immense culture and people of every race, culture and creed.

Which is why SimCity is so confusing to me: It’s a city game without any subways.

I grew up playing SimCity 2000. In many ways, it was a game that shaped what I thought an ideal big city should be and psychologically prepared me for the experience of living in one. The most efficiently made cities in that game followed so many of the conventions I would later find here — The grid system, the emphasis on population density, and above all the idea that public transit is key to making any city grow and function well. Look hard enough, and you’ll find the DNA of New York City in SimCity 2000.

The new SimCity is not a game about big cities. It’s not a game about making London or New York or Paris or Tokyo. SimCity is a game about the complex ecosystems that exist between medium size cities and towns, about urban and suburban sprawl. It’s a game that I’ve really grown to enjoy.

But it needs subways.

Part of the problem is the roads. In the new SimCity, the roads dictate the maximum density of your buildings; the idea being that more traffic allows for more growth. And while this is true a lot of the time, life doesn’t always work that way in a sprawling metropolis where space is at a premium. If that were the case, then the Financial District in New York, with all it’s tiny, one way side-streets, would still be full of tiny Dutch buildings.

Ideologically, much of SimCity feels rooted in the failed legacy of infamous New York City urban planner Robert Moses. Moses believed that highways and suburban commuting were the key to urban growth. Saying once of his plan to bulldoze big parts of lower Manhattan to make way for a 10-lane super-highway “We simply repeat, that cities are created by and for traffic. A city without traffic is a ghost town”. Moses was rebuked, the highway was never built, and history has since vindicated his opponents.

Subways are essentially a space-saving hack. They encourage density without causing clutter, and unlike trolley-cars and busses they’re not beholden to the ebb and flow of traffic. It’s the reason why so many of the most psychotically dense cities ever built in the history of the SimCity franchise have no roads, existing exclusively on subways. It’s also why only about 54% of people in this city even have cars and why even fewer commute with them.

I’m not saying that subways are ideal or that focusing on building density creates a world that is somehow magically happier. I’m not saying New York City’s design is without flaws (believe me, there are many) or even that there is such a thing as a perfect city: Part of the thing that works so well in SimCity the very idea that no city is without it’s pros and cons. What I am saying is that statistically more and more people are abandoning the sprawl of the suburbs in favour of living in giant cities — that a growing population is choosing to live in urban areas rather than being tethered to the perpetually rising price of gas.

A game called SimCity should be capable of reflecting that.

I’m aware that there are trolley cars and busses in the game, but that’s not the point. One of the most basic, core impulses in any simulation is the desire to create a simulacrum – a proxy of a thing either real or fictional. The continued success of Minecraft is proof positive of that basic truth. But in it’s current state, with it’s small plots of land and lack of subways, I can’t recreate the place I’ve chosen to call my home. Not only that, I can’t make anything remotely resembling it.

All I want from SimCity is New York and New York is nothing without its subways.